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Understanding Light

Light is something that you most likely take for granted in your day-to-day lives. But once you pick up a camera, you are literally painting with light, and much like there are many different kinds of paint, light is equally as dynamic. To really understand what’s on your palette as a photographer, you need to understand light. To do so, let’s look at the different properties of light: its intensity, its quality, and its direction.

Quality of Light

The quality of light can be described as hard light or soft light. This is a very important differentiation that you need to make as portrait photographers, because soft light is often the most flattering light for peoples’ faces. If you look closely at Figure 4.1 and then at Figure 4.2, it’s very easy to see a big difference in the quality of light. But do you know what you’re looking at specifically in each image that defines the light as hard or soft? Seeing light is equally about seeing the highlights as it is seeing the shadows. To identify quality of light, you need only look at the transition between the two. In Figure 4.1, you see that the light instantly falls to shadow, whereas in Figure 4.2 the transition is more gradual, so much so that you can barely see where the highlight ends and the shadow begins. This is extremely soft light and is perfect for flattering a person’s face. Hard light on the other hand is not so flattering because that quick transition to shadow will call attention to any wrinkles or blemishes on your subject’s face.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1 A portrait lit with hard light. The highlight-to-shadow transition is instant.

Nikon D800 • ISO 80 • 1/1250 sec. • f/1.4 • 35mm lens

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2 A portrait lit with soft light. The highlight-to-shadow transition is extremely gradual. You can hardly see where the highlights end and the shadows begin.

Nikon D800 • ISO 80 • 1/1250 sec. • f/1.4 • 35mm lens

Fortunately, there aren’t many rules that you need to follow as photographers, but there are two that you really should take to heart: To get that beautiful soft light, you need to make sure that the light source is as large and as close to your subject as possible. A large light source spreads light evenly everywhere, washing the subject in illumination. Also, by moving the light source closer to the subject, you increase its relative size to the subject. This combination is what produces the great portrait light you saw in Figure 4.2.

When you step outside and assess your light, the sun becomes your light source. You’d think that such a massive ball of fire would produce soft light, right? Well, not exactly, because it only adheres to the first rule, size. The fact that it is 92,960,000 miles away means that in relation to your subject it is actually quite small. This “small” and faraway light source creates very harsh shadows, which is why no one likes to photograph at high noon, because the direct light by itself is horribly hard and unforgiving. But have you noticed on cloudy days that the light is infinitely softer? This is because the clouds become the new light source, with the sun shining through them. Clouds are large and much closer than the bare sun.

Direction of Light

The second characteristic of light that you need to keep in mind is the direction of light. Depending on where the light is coming from, the amount of shadow on your subject’s face can change dramatically. Shadow is necessary to create depth in a portrait, making a person look more three dimensional, but deep shadows don’t look good at every angle. In direct sunlight you now know you’ll be dealing with very hard light, but even on overcast days with soft light there is still a direction to the light if you look closely.

Two common directions of light that you’ll run into when shooting portraits outdoors are direct overhead sunlight and side lighting in direct sun.

Overhead light

On days when the sun is shining brightly and directly overhead, you have plenty of light to work with. However, the sun in that position usually produces those dreaded raccoon eye shadows, and under those deep shadows your poor subjects are usually squinting pretty hard. Shooting in direct overhead sunlight is uncomfortable for them and uncomfortable for anyone who has to look at a bad portrait, like the one in Figure 4.3. Images like this have scared photographers away from shooting in midday light for ages.

Figure 4.3

Figure 4.3 Harsh direct overhead sunlight produces unflattering light and deep eye shadows.

Nikon D800 • ISO 100 • 1/2500 sec. • f/2.8 • 85mm lens

Side light

Conventional wisdom tells you not to shoot at noon and to just wait until the sun starts its descent. Figure 4.4 was taken later in the afternoon when the sun was lower in the sky, so I was able to avoid that nasty direct overhead light. But because of the harsh side lighting, now half of the model’s face is covered in shadow. On their own, neither direction scenario—direct overhead nor side lighting—will yield a great portrait. For this reason, as portrait photographers, you need to have a few tricks up your sleeve to produce flattering photos no matter which direction the light is coming from, which I’ll talk about next.

Figure 4.4

Figure 4.4 Direct sunlight coming in from the side produces unflattering light and deep shadows on half of the model’s face.

Nikon D800 • ISO 100 • 1/1000 sec. • f/2.8 • 85mm lens

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